The 3,000-Mile Oil Change Myth

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Here’s the scenario: You head into the quickie lube garage and drop $30 or so for an oil change. As you drive away, you notice a sticker in the upper corner of your windshield telling you when you’ll be due for another oil change—the classic “three months of 3,000 miles.” Unless you want to waste money (and use more oil than is necessary, which is bad for the environment), don’t trust the sticker.

An auto maintenance article in the Boston Globe reminded me of the 3,000-mile myth. I think many drivers suspect that changing the oil every 3,000 miles is overkill, but they want to play it safe and protect the life of their vehicles—and hey, it’s only $25 or $30 here and there. Some drivers push it an additional 1,000 or 2,000 miles, but even changing your oil that frequently may be unnecessary. Depending on your car, you might be able to drive 7,500 or even 10,000 miles between oil changes without putting your vehicle’s life expectancy at risk.

Another key point in the Globe story is a warning about the pressurized—and public—upsell that drivers are subject to when bringing a car in to get serviced:

“Those quickie oil change places have spent a lot of money on marketing and studying what drives people to make retail decisions,’” said Tony Blezien, vice president of operations for LeasePlan USA. “And one of the things they have found to be most effective is to call people out in front of their peers. It’s almost as if the customers are embarrassed and feel like they need to buy those extras.”

Of course, you can save money by changing your car’s oil and doing other routine maintenance yourself. It’s just not for everyone, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, the DIY method can cost you in the long run. Thirty bucks is money well spent if it means your engine isn’t going to cease. But spending $30 twice as often as you need to is doubly annoying. Some oil change specs from the Globe store:

Oil Changes: The “three months or 3,000 miles’” mantra for how often oil changes need to be performed has become so common that many drivers don’t realize that it’s an oil industry marketing pitch. Blezien said drivers should check their vehicle’s owner’s manual to see what the manufacturer recommends, as some newer vehicles can go longer in between changes.

Some newer vehicles are equipped with a warning light that tells the driver when the car is due for an oil change, and in some cases it may be up to 6,000 miles in between visits. “The important thing there is once that light goes on, you should get your oil changed within two gas fill-ups of your vehicle,’” Blezien said.

Read your owner’s manual to find out about the recommended oil change schedule. That’s the only way to really know what to do. What’s funny—in the aggravating, drive-you-crazy way—is that you can even bring your car into a dealership to get an oil change, and a worker there will put the same 3,000-mile warning sticker on your car, knowing full well that the vehicle in question only needs oil changes every 5,000 or 6,000 miles.

If you’re not sold that the 3,000-mile rule is a myth, check out some quotes on the topic from Consumer Reports, NPR’s “Car Talk” guys, and other experts.